Saturday, 13 December 2014

Back Behind Bars… Yet Again!

I was back behind prison walls again yesterday. Hearing those barred metal gates clang shut and keys being turned in locks by men and women dressed in black and white uniforms brought back some mixed memories, as did being given a pretty thorough body search – while still clothed for once – and waiting for doors to be opened. 

A fence within a high wall
As I walked along a concrete path within a very high fence topped with razor wire, that was itself inside the massive grey and intimidating walls of an inner city Cat-B, I had a curious feeling of being back ‘home’ again. That’s institutionalisation in action. The only glimpse of the outside world from inside was the blue sky above and it reminded me of the hundreds of days I’d spent within such confines looking up above the high walls of other prisons that were very similar in layout and design.

At each phase of the journey deeper and deeper into the prison, gates and doors have to be opened by a member of staff. The spaces and rooms steadily get smaller and more enclosed as you enter each new section.

Inside, it was all fluorescent lighting and all-too familiar polished lino tile floors. You can smell the same brand of disinfectant masking the stench of unwashed men on every prison wing. On the notice boards, there were the same old posters about reporting bullying and warnings against smuggling contraband. Everywhere CCTV cameras follow your every move, controlled from the security office. Home, sweet home! 

Black and white uniforms
Fortunately, I was just making another social visit to a good friend who is back inside on recall. I knew that at the end of the afternoon I’d be going back out into the real world, while he wouldn’t. In fact, he has no idea when, or if, he’ll be getting released. Such is the inhumanity of the now discontinued Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection (IPP) although thousands of prisoners are still serving it with no end in sight.

If any reader feels the urge to experience a tiny little bit of what it’s like to be locked up in a UK prison – without actually committing a crime or being the victim of a miscarriage of justice – then I’d recommend going on a prison visit if you ever get the chance. Believe me, when the first barred metal gate clangs shut and you realise that you are on the wrong side of it without any keys, you do start to get the sense of being caged and confined that prison is all about. 

Most of my fellow visitors were old hands at the game. Like me, they knew exactly what the routines were, including the order in which the body searches are carried out. You don’t even have to be asked to open your mouth, lift your arms, spread your legs or raise your feet so your soles can be checked. The security staff are mainly on the look out for drugs, but prepaid mobile phone SIM cards are also very easy to conceal and can help keep major drug dealers inside the nick in contact with their networks back on the street.

Body search ahead of a visit
To be fair, it’s all done in a very businesslike and professional manner, but the searching is quite a lot more intrusive than you’d normally experience at an airport (unless you get taken away into one of the little backrooms, of course). Having a complete stranger running their hands over your body and putting their fingers in your pockets is just one of the compulsory procedures before a visitor is permitted any contact with inmates.

A few of the younger lads going in at the same time as me had probably been inside themselves as they seemed to know some members of staff by name. I guessed that they were also visiting family or perhaps mates they’d got to know when they were serving time inside the slammer. I know that a surprising number of ex-cons remain in touch with lads they have met in jail, sometimes helping out by sending in a bit of cash to their prison accounts and coming in on visiting days to help keep morale up.

It’s good to see friends face to face, even if you do speak regularly on the phone or write. We chat about our legal cases, exchange news about mutual acquaintances and I get an update on the deepening crisis inside the prison where there has been a recent suicide and major cutbacks in staffing. The 90-minute session seems to pass in a flash and it’s soon time to end the visit. 

A visits hall in a UK prison
Leaving the prison at the end of a session in the visits hall is a much quicker affair. At this particular private sector nick they make use of electronic fingerprint scanners and it seems that almost every door and gate is open before you even get to it. Getting inside takes the best part of an hour. Going out again can be as quick as five minutes.

Beyond the enjoyment of seeing good friends who I want to support while they are inside, I sometimes feel that I also need to make these visits in order to plug myself back into what is really happening inside our prisons on a daily basis. Of course, I also receive regular letters from mates who are still serving their sentences, as well as information from family members, but there is no substitute for actually going back inside from time to time. 

Early next year I’m planning to visit another friend who is serving a very long sentence in one of Britain’s very worst Cat-B nicks. I hope to find out for myself just how bad the situation there has become since I did some time there myself a couple of years ago. It was an absolute disgrace back then, so with even less staff and much greater overcrowding on the wings, I want to hear for myself how things really are from a lad who is living through it all day, every day, year after year.  


  1. Its always a time of very mixed emotions for me when i visit my son who is serving an IPP sentence. The longer this goes on the harder it gets for him as he is becoming more despondent and has even talked of suicide as he isnt prepared to wait forever. Its hard for us trying to think of ways to keep his hope alive.
    I wonder if prison officers have any idea of the impact they can have on visitors. I have met and been treated with respect by some, others have treated me and other visitors with utter contempt which has made me want to cry out that i am innocent and only guilty of giving birth to a son who has committed a crime. Do they ever think of just how heartbreaking it can be for a visitor who brought their child up to know the difference between right and wrong and did their utmost to steer them in the right direction of life and their choices. If only they knew how many years my husband and I spent asking the question what did we do wrong?
    In the early days I remember my knees trembling as I entered the prison to be searched and I think I was visibly shaking, I really didn’t think I would make it to the visits hall without my legs giving way.
    I have sat in the visitors centres looking hearing and seeing people from all walks of life. Some who have been just as horrified as I was and still am to have been put in this situation. The shame and embarrassment is dreadful, you are judged by some officers, you are judged by your neighbours, family and friends. To hear some visitors talk it’s like a day out, the norm, some ex offenders amongst the visitors almost brag of their time inside. I don’t know if that’s their way of coping or if it is to make themselves seem important by telling tales of their escapades. Who knows? Maybe its just not their time to have learnt from their past endeavours and move forward.
    I find the entering of prison, identity checking and searches bearable although it always makes me feel like I have done something wrong but I do understand why they are necessary. The end of a visit is the part I find hardest to cope with. I don’t look back. They usually tend to try and cram as many as they can in to the spaces between the next set of doors. Its is like being in a claustrophobic cattle market, being shouted at to move forward when there is no more space to move forward in.
    I have been shocked, even horrified by some of the things my son and others have told me. My views of prison and prisoners have changed dramatically since our journey began. I think if the public knew the half of it they would be too.
    As a parent with a son in hmp I worry every day in the current climate that I will get a call or a visit to tell me something bad has happened to my son. It isn’t only the officer’s families that have this worry; we visitors have that worry too. We do this sentence along with our loved ones and are given very little thought or help. Any help or information we have to find it for ourselves. No one sits us down and tells us what to expect.
    I’m not really sure what I was trying to say in my above ramblings but if anyone has read this far you deserve a medal.

    1. Thanks for your honest and moving contribution, Marie. I think that visiting family members will always be much more difficult than visiting friends.

      I'm fortunate that no-one from my immediate family (other than me!) has ever served a prison sentence, although it came close for at least one of my younger relatives when he was involved with raves, drug culture and other silly lads' nonsense. I actually stood by him in court and, luckily, he only received a fine with costs. It could have been much worse.

      When I was inside myself I refused to allow any of my family and friends to visit, although many asked for a Visiting Order. I was resolute in refusing any visitors other than my solicitor or the local armed forces veterans' welfare officer.

      I really didn't want to put them through all the hassle of the long journey to the prisons I was held at, or the whole humiliating procedure of being photographed, fingerprinted, searched and so on. I also didn't like the idea of them seeing me in such a grim predicament.

      I do think you are spot on about the casual way in which some younger people - males and females alike - do treat imprisonment, as if it's some predestined 'rite of passage' to adulthood. Certainly, the young lads I was with yesterday as we were processed through the visitors' centre, the security checks and the final waiting room for the call up to go in were very much at home, even knowing some of the staff by name. Either they are very regular visitors or, more likely, they've been doing time themselves quite recently.

      For some of them, of course, it's all bravado... "I've done me bird. I'm a hard lad!" In reality, they are often the ones who cry themselves to sleep at night when no-one can hear them and miss their mums the most.

      I have heard some real horror stories of visits in other nicks and the appalling way some visitors get treated by staff. However, I must be honest and note that both the recent visits I've made to private sector prisons have been pretty stress-free, other than the mild anxiety of being locked up again, if only for part of a day. All the staff I encountered were pleasant and helpful and it was obvious that some of the wing officers knew prisoners and their families by name and went round to say hello as visitors arrived, so I really can't say anything negative.

      It is always well said that prisoners' families serve the 'second sentence'. I've written about that myself on this blog: Serving the Second Sentence: (31 July 2014). I also agree that on this journey we all change, particularly our attitudes.

      Whenever I hear someone stating very glibly "If you can't do the time, don't do the crime" I often wonder how they would cope with imprisonment or the jailing of someone they care about. After all, anyone who drives a vehicle these days is only a momentary loss of concentration away from a causing death by dangerous driving charge and several years in prison if convicted! Our prison wings do have quite a few people in that position. I've known several myself.

    2. >>When I was inside myself I refused to allow any of my family and friends to visit, although many asked for a Visiting Order. I was resolute in refusing any visitors other than my solicitor or the local armed forces veterans' welfare officer.


      It must have been difficult to endure the whole sentence without visitors and I was surprised that you chose to do it. I admire your strength in sticking to your decision. Were there many others who did the same?

      How did your family and friends feel about it? I remember feeling very scared before visiting a prison the first time, but subsequent visits were no problem. I would have felt rather hurt if I had been told not to visit in case the stress would be too much for me.

    3. I didn’t actually get to visit our son for 7 years. He didn’t want us to visit and at the time I was alright with that, he had put us through so much and we needed time to heal from events that had happened. He had a drug problem, not everything that happened was his fault but couple with the things that were we were all struggling and it took its toll. I gave up work for a while because I was barley functioning I had struggled for so long being stuck in the middle trying to be the peace maker, keep my husband and daughter happy while at the same time trying to sort our son out. Not only that but he was sent so far away to the Isle of Wight and having given up my job my husbands wages wouldn’t have allowed for the travel expense and he didn’t want to see him or my daughter and I wasn’t confident enough to go on my own. He did write and phone and I wrote but he did understand why his dad wouldn’t speak to him.
      Eventually when Camphill closed and he was shipped back to the mainland our daughter said she wanted to see him and he agreed for us to go. It was an extremely emotional visit. I was so worried that I wouldn’t even recognise him. As time went on my daughter took our granddaughter, she was only months old when he was imprisoned and my daughters partner started to visit with us. We have managed to build alot of bridges.
      Out of the blue one night only a few months ago my husband said he would like to visit our son the next time I went, by the expression on my face my husband laughed and said “yes you did hear me right” That visit is certainly one for the diary. I was so worried they wouldn’t know what to say to each other and that it would be so awkward. I was standing at the kiosk to get our drinks before the officers brought them through and I looked around and saw my husband and son hugging each other and by the time I got to the table they were chatting away, laughing and smiling. I had hoped and prayed that this day would come. I used to leave our sons letters lying around because I knew my husband read them when I wasn’t about. He didn’t object to me talking about him, he did ask about him and I knew deep in my heart that he still loved our son just hated what he did and put us through, but needed to do this in his own time not mine.
      As our son is serving an IPP sentence we have needed to see him and him us because he doesn’t know when he will be released, it was time to start rebuilding our family .

    4. Thanks to Anon for your question above. I think that of those prisoners who don't have visitors, a few - like myself - make a conscious decision for the same reasons I did, to protect family and friends from the whole humiliating situation. I wanted them to remember me as I was before the nightmare started, rather than the pale con with badly cropped hair and dressed in grubby, ill-fitting prison clothing, topped off by a luminous prison 'bib' over my sweatshirt to mark me out to staff as a prisoner. Of course, this included an element of trying to maintain some sense of dignity.

      However, many other prisoners who don't receive visits are in that situation because they are often placed in prisons that are long distances from their family home, or else their parents - often elderly - are too frail or ill to travel these distances and then face the security procedures. These men and women also sometimes don't have family visits for years.

      I think some of my friends found my refusal to have visits a concern, but they've only expressed that face to face since my release. A few felt that I wasn't coping well inside, even though this wasn't the case at all and I was lucky enough to get interesting, mentally stimulating jobs inside most of the establishments I was held in, but I can understand their fears.

      Once I was released, I made a point of meeting them all, or at least speaking on the phone and getting back in touch via social media to reassure them I survived reasonably unscathed. I think that now they all understand and accept my decision not to participate in visits having heard my reasoning for themselves.

    5. Thank you, Marie for your first-hand account of how you and your family are being effected by your son's imprisonment on the terrible and inhumane IPP sentence. I often think that those who have no involvement with the prison system overlook the wide impact on those left behind outside who nevertheless serve every day of the sentence with their loved one.

      You also make an important point about the cost of travel for families, especially since most people who have a job - no matter how low the income - don't qualify for any assistance from the Assisted Visits Scheme. Even those who do - mainly people who are retired on a state pension or on benefits - have to cover many of the costs themselves and if children are involved in travelling the whole process of visits can easily outstrip the family income, thus bringing further hardship. It must be a terrible choice for those who have very limited resources - look after the kids or visit their mum or dad in prison.

      The emotional trauma for family and friends also tends to be forgotten, including entering prisons to visit loved ones after not having met for a long time - even years. Thank you for sharing your experience of this with us. Let's hope this IPP scandal is resolved in the near future.

    6. It's true that the impact of a prison sentence is felt much wider than the person that's been incarcerated. My own experiences quite upset me due to the toil I caused my family. They diligently visited me each week at much inconvenience and expense to themselves. I cannot, in words, explain what that meant to me whilst I was inside.

  2. My first experiences of prison visits was as a visitor.

    The inside of a prison is a bleak place - in this particular case a Victorian Cat-B local. Bare walls, featureless rooms iron bars and locked gates all around. I found the visiting hall a little depressing with harsh lighting and cheap furniture. Officers in the room would watch my every move and I had the constant feeling being scowled at and of having done something wrong myself. The staff presence was quite intimidating. The snack bar served bland food, cheap coffee, a few chocolate bars and lukewarm soft drinks. The lads being visited seemed somewhat downbeat and dejected wearing their scruffy prison clothes.

    Soon roles reversed and it was me being visited.

    As we were escorted to the visits hall the lads had a spring in their step and a general feeling of excitement. We all had the best clothing on that we had saved for the visit. Even the staff escorting us were a little more relaxed than on the wing. The visit hall was open and airy and brightly lit compared to what we had become used to with soft furnishings and carpet! The food was a very special treat, hot freshly cooked meals - roast chicken and bacon sandwiches being very popular. There was nice coffee with real (not powdered) milk and best of all ice cold Coke. We'd return to the wing well fed for possibly the first time in weeks.

    My experiences were in the same visit hall in the same Cat-B local.

    1. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences from both sides of the visits tables! It does go to show just how grim everyday life in the nick can be that even the average visiting hall looks bright, comfortable and welcoming to the cons (even if their visitors perceive it to be depressing and tacky!) How our perceptions can change when roles are reversed.

      As for the food on offer in visiting halls, I think I'd started to forget just how bad prison food can be at its worst - but being back behind bars again reminded me! Nevertheless, the lad I was visiting enthusiastically put away some sandwiches, cakes, fresh fruit and chocolate, as well as a couple of coffees. Since almost anything is better off the wing, I can see why even the humble offerings in the visits hall are a special treat!

  3. Are there any uk prisons that offer good work n learning opportunities plus time out of cells above 6 hrs a day. Vas

    1. Thanks for your question, Vas. Obviously all the Cat-Ds are pretty good, but then there are no locked cells, just rooms. With open prisons you can apply for voluntary work or even paid work (subject to a 40 percent victims surcharge on earnings).

      Most closed prisons now have much shorter unlock times, but prisoners who work in key departments - stores, kitchens, reception - probably get most out of their cells more than most other cons. However staff shortages and overcrowding means that more and more prisoners can't find jobs or get on education courses. The lad I was visiting yesterday has two hours' work a day as a cleaner, but hardly anyone else on his wing has any work. It's pretty grim.

  4. Did you visit Jokewood Prison?

    1. No, I missed out on that particular treat! However, early on, I did hear about Oakwood when it wasn't long opened and applied for a transfer there as soon as I got my Cat-C. Fortunately, I never received any response. How lucky was I!

    2. how can i answer my homework about ur work man about how does alex cavendish use language to describe the prison